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India’s Political Future: A View from a Bystander
I have just come back from one of my twice-yearly visits to India, and was describing my latest visit to a British friend. Since I first visited (very briefly) in 1984 the country has changed out of all recognition, not least of all because since then Chicken Tikka Masala has become as popular in India as it is here in the U.K. Joking aside, a number of immutable realities remain, however, and this is what my friend was attempting to get from me. After I had explained my view of the present ‘BJPisation’ of India he asked, “So, are all the tensions inherent in Indian society and politics that you’ve described, mutually destructive?”
“Yes and no,” I replied, trying not to have to give an unequivocal answer. But today, and on reflection, I think my instinctive answer was right. India is a successful democracy, and has been for the past nearly eighty-years. It is a country made up of competing cultures, traditions and religions united by a common recent history and purpose; namely, the self-determination of post-colonial political independence. India, like all countries, is a product of its past and is also the sum of its parts. Like all countries, it needs to find a way to unite its various cultural sub-compoents to agree in a continuing common purpose that changes with every generation.
To the outsider this looks difficult, as India’s contrasts have the seeming potential to overwhelm this common purpose. Every headline grabbing case of domestic political violence of grandstanding by the current political leadership results in pundits the world over predicting the collapse of the Indian state as we know it, or its ‘Hinduisation’ under what its many detractors describe as the so-called ‘Modi-dictatorship’. To my mind much of this is political hyperbole. India is an eighty-year-old country of well over a billion souls professing five main religions, speaking 24 main languages in over 200 dialects and consisting of thousands of castes. It is, furthermore, relatively poor, in which the increasing economic prosperity of the past two decades has not been uniformly distributed, resulting in growing and visible disparities between those who have and those who have not. Quite manifestly it is also a country in which different religious groups compete vigorously with each other for a slice of the national cake, and also where religious or avowedly religious causes clash noisily. It is also a state where domestic political power is fought for more determinedly than most others, and where no issue, no matter how inflammatory or sensitive, is considered to be above use as a vehicle for the pursuit of political goals.
At the start of the 1990s the certainties which had provided the pillars of statehood since 1947 seemed unchanged. The Congress Party, led by a member of the Gandhi clan, governed; economic policy was still based on socialist tenets; secularism held communal interests at bay and so far as international relations were concerned India’s non-aligned status remained little changed. Yet as that decade ended socialism lost something of its savour and attempts were made to liberalise the economy with serious consequences in the emerging market for those devoid of any purchasing power at all – the poor. Communal violence had constantly challenged both the authority of central government and the constitutional doctrine of secularism, and radical movements promoting communal agendas for Hindu, Sikh and Muslim contrived to throw down the gauntlet to both. The great – and recent – transformation in Indian politics occurred in 2014 when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition known as the National Democratic Alliance secured, under the BJP leader Narendra Modi, a landslide victory in the general election. The NDA remains in power nearly a decade later.
However, while there are self-evident systemic instabilities in the Indian state it does not mean that they are destined to pull the country apart. They might do, of course, if the countervailing forces in the country that unite the majority behind a common national purpose become subsumed by forces that allow or encourage the development of exceptionalism, Hindu or otherwise. This, I suppose, is the worry about the overwhelming dominance of a Hindu-dominated BJP, a worry made all the worse by the apparent grandstanding of the Prime Minister. During my recent visit I couldn’t turn a corner without seeing his beaming countenance assuring me that India was in safe hands. But while the history of modern India shows the potentiality for extremist violence (such as the Gujurat riots in 2002), this is not to say that exceptionalism or religious/political partisanship is all powerful or all prevailing. Indeed, many other groupings apart from Hindus vote for the BJP. Indian communalism has many well-springs, not least religious emotion and nationalist aspirations. It is arguable that some of the forms of extreme exceptionalism that I have seen develop in recent decades (such as this dramatic rise in neo-Hinduism – Hindus make up 80% of the population) potentially threatens not only the avowed secularism of the state but also the nature of Indian religion and, perhaps most importantly, the inter-community tolerance which is vital for the survival of a parliamentary democracy. Overriding these tribal impertaives is a higher national purpose, namely the unifying of national India, giving expression to a sense of national oneness despite the multiplicy of other divisions that are an intrinsic part of modern Indian identity. It hardly needs saying that the victory of communalism or exceptionalism over national unity is dangerous for the survival of democracy. While historic political violence in Indian society cannot be ignored or dismissed and includes inter-communal violence (between Muslims and Hindus, or Sikhs and Hindus, for example), caste violence within Hinduism and secessionist violence (such as that prompted by Muslim calls for Kashmir to secede from India, demands by Sikh militants for the formation of a Sikh state, Khalistan, for Assamese calls for greater autonomy), it is not necessarily a given that these imperatives will trump a sense of national unity and bring down the Indian state as we know it.
The problem is that divisions and disagreements make good press, especially in an era in which popular participation in social media has exploded. The major issue for me remains whether Hindu exceptionalism today, widely reported nationally and internationally, is ultimately self-destructive within the context of India unity. I do not believe this to be so. It has been observed many times that democracy is itself a spur to violence, the basic tenet of ‘majority rule’, for instance in a country of deep cultural, racial and political divisions making the concept of one-person one-vote the catalyst for communalism, as it allows groups to vote for their tribal preference. The counter to this is that the glue required to hold the state together hinges upon the ability of the parliamentary system to provide stability to a democratic system in which minority governments dominated between 1989 and 2014. Indeed, the BJP in 2014 secured 30% of the national vote, and hold power only by virtue of the NDA. While it seems beyond dispute that since the late 1980s dominant-issue parties – the BJP being the prime example – have articulated religious and tribal exceptionalism, it is less certain whether this has undone the knots that bind India together, rather than merely elevating partisanship within a national political structure that remains essentially secure. It seems to me unarguable that the BJP have employed increasing religious unity to strengthen party interests, interests which are by their very nature communal. However unplatable this may be to secular Indians of the old Congress class this doesn’t mean that as a consequence that the entire concept of India is undermined as a result. What it does mean is that those in power need to work harder to focus on the issues that bind rather than those that divide, and this seems to me to be the primary test for the strength or otherwise of India’s sense of unity and purpose. We all have political axes to grind (I write in the United Kingdom), but do these inevitably mean that end of the polity that enables me the freedom to express them? Not all all. The sames goes for India. The fact of the matter seems to me that India understands that religion is an integral element of Indian life and despite the avowed secularism of the state cannot be wholly ruled out of Indian politics. As Gandhi argued, ‘that those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.’ Fundamentalism of the Hindu, Muslim or Sikh varieties is a reaction against the post-independence dogma that religion has no part to play in the affairs of the state and is to be confined to the domestic and personal domain. The problem perhaps now lies in the fact that it has been the politicians who have exploited a political sense of what it means to be a religious Hindu, producing an electorate who feel that they have a unique identity which can only be protected and sustained by their party. In an Indian political, religious, social and cultural environment which is strongly cosmopolitan the emergence of a strident Hinduism claiming political strength through a common religious and cultural inheritance, however contrived, is regarded with trepidation not only by members of the other religious groups but those of all faiths who see it as threat to the secularism which has traditionally united people in their common view of what India was. Christians, Sikhs and Muslims have felt the brunt of this new dogmatism, and secularists quite rightly scoff at some of the historical mythmaking that has been going in with respect to the construction of a Hindu past. The fear is that in even in the benignest of Hindu-dominated governments the pressure to yield to extremist demands would inevitably lead it to favour Hindus – or at least the Hindi-speaking population – at the expense of the rest of the country.
Extremist forces can do much to create instability, not only with the sectarian community but also between that community and the state, although it does not follow invariably that the logical end-state is national self-destruction. The challenge for the Indian government is to meet the majority demands for recognition within each distinct community, while denying the extremist claims for secession or political domination at the expense of all other legitimate Indian voices who hold to a different view.
“So what” my friend then asked me, “about caste?” I am no expert, I told him, merely an interested (and reasonably experienced observer) but I think that caste and casteism (i.e. the use of caste for political purposes) within the Hindu population could be seen as an example of continuing divisions within Indian society. I have a number of Hindu friends with whom I have discussed caste over the years. Although none, I suspect, would ever envisage a social system without caste, it seems obvious to me that caste restricts opportunities for social mobility and the further integration of society. Castes have tended to close doors on outsiders and band together to protect their own politically-oriented groups, something which the homogenising impulses of urbanisation have acted to strengthen rather than weaken. Universal suffrage has aided this process, by giving castes very real political power. Interestingly, while discrimination by caste has been outlawed in India, it remains a potent force in Indian politics. It seems to me that the survival of caste and of casteism does not point to the disintegration of the Indian state, but merely to the preservation of one group of interests in it.
So, my answer to my friend’s question remains a positive one. I don’t see in the ingredients of the current political conversation in India the seeds of her destruction. Those imperatives already exist, and have done so long before the invention of the idea of India under the Raj, and the subsequent expression of Indianness following Independence and Partition. Nevertheless, to say that India is at a cross-roads is perhaps to lapse into cliché but there does seem consensus on the part of commentators that India has to face stark choices in its dealings with the forces within society that not only threathen the viability of the secular state, but in some cases appear to wish to see it destroyed altogether in favour of a resurgent Hinduism. My view is that structures of democratic expression through the political system inherited in 1947 make for a noisy national conversation, but do not intrinsically challenge or threaten the viability of a multi-cultural and multi-religious state. The challenge today remains what it has been since 1947: for the elected government to prioritise the forging of a national identity above all else that has sufficient glue to hold the country together despite the plethora of disparate national, religious and caste emotions which exist at present, emotions whose natural direction is perhaps toward group interests rather than the interests of the Indian state but which, if carefully nurtured within their own environment, can actually strengthen the development of an Indian nationhood.
Readers will enjoy the perspective of my very good friend, Dr Sumantra Maitra, writing recently on this subject.
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